Skiing is an activity that takes place in the great outdoors. Skiers get to enjoy mother nature on many levels. From bright sunny days to snowy or rainy days, visibility can be a challenge. Goggles are a great solution. So, too, are neck warmers which can both shield from the cold elements and protect from the sun’s rays. It’s a natural activity where we are bundled up. Years ago, I learned a lesson during a ski instructors course that has since served me well. Our facilitator taught us the importance of our eyes and face with respect to communicating. The facilitator wisely noted that our ability to influence others was less due to our direct skill or worldly knowledge, but more due to our ability to make others comfortable. In short, to be likeable. He told us that before any technical instruction can be heard, we must be trusted by the receiver. He demanded that when we addressed a group of students, we remove our goggles or sunglasses and ensured our faces were clear. Before we can expose others to our expertise, we need to earn their trust by making them comfortable with us.
Which one of these two characters would you rather learn from?
Do we even know if this first person is, in fact, a person? What planet are they from? Would you leave your child in their care? If you had a choice to work with either them or the second one, with which would you leave your children?
How about this fellow? Does he inspire trust, confidence, and friendliness?
Perhaps, that’s a look best left for Halloween?
Our facilitator was giving us an objective way to apply Theodore Roosevelt’s recognition that “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Put another way, before we can effect someone, we must affect them. Presenting yourself such that your eyes and face are visible is the quickest way to build rapport. Our facilitator’s lesson is something that has stuck with me far longer than any technical information about skiing. It’s something I have tried to implement in any situation when meeting new people. I’ve always tried it when dealing with authority figures as well. For example, when driving through customs going to/from the US. I would make an effort (and encourage my children) to remove both hats and sunglasses. We’re not trying to hide. We want to be open.
Tim Sanders in his book, The Likeability Factor, considers “friendliness” as a core factor of being likeable. Friendliness boils down to evoking in others a generally positive feeling. Do either of our alien or biker evoke positive feelings? Can you help others be comfortable in your presence? We must first convince others that we represent safety and comfort. Simple acts of friendliness like how we look at someone with our eyes and many muscles of the face can have huge impacts on how others feel. When people are friendly and positive to us, we feel great and enjoy their presence. Our facial expressions can go a long way to increasing our friendliness. The way we use our eyebrows, eyes, and smile all either build up or tear down our friendliness. Our course facilitator made it clear that when working with others our personal comfort wasn’t the priority, working to positively influence the group was. Allowing our eyes to be seen is reassuring and comforting to others. Presenting our full faces allows you to communicate on levels we all understand instinctively better than words. Direct visual contact with large eyes and raised eyebrows suggest positive, friendly messages. This combined with a calm, friendly tone is sure to enhance the receptiveness of your message. No surprise, but adding a smile, helps, too.
If we think back through our life experiences, can we come up with any examples where “good guys” wore masks? Are there any influential teachers, coaches, or bosses that you have had that inspired comfort and confidence in you by covering their face? Even where fictional superheroes like the Lone Ranger, Spiderman, Batman, or Zorro wore masks they were all doing so with the explicit intent of concealing their true identity. The mask wasn’t part of their power. It was a disguise. It’s used to cover something up. For most of us, one of the few experiences we may have had with masked individuals would be with a dentist or surgeon. In either case, when they are engaging with us, talking, communicating, they remove their masks. They look us in the eye with their uncovered eyes. They show us their face. They use their masks only when doing a job in which we aren’t engaging or communicating.
I was driving West leaving Calgary in September. I passed a car that had been pulled over by an RCMP. The driver had the window down and was wearing both sunglasses and a mask. The officer walking to the vehicle wore neither. I wondered what the driver’s intention was wearing both mask and glasses. Were they trying to be responsible? Were they trying to be difficult? What was their logic? I also wondered whether there was logic or protocol behind the action of the officer. Were they directed to present themselves openly without a mask? What was his thoughts as he approached the driver? Was his comfort in the interaction increased as he approached a masked individual with covered eyes?
Our brains have a wonderful capacity to scan our environments, largely unconsciously, for threats. If we trust our intuition, our brains can provide us with warning signals that something of concern is impending. However, if we allow ourselves to become too hypersensitive to our intuition, effectively, becoming on constant guard of threat, we trade security for anxiety. When our alarm bells are ringing all the time, we can no longer sense whether we should take the alarm seriously or not. Anxiety always follows uncertainty. When in circumstances involving other people, our brains are performing their threat scans constantly. It is looking at people and asking, do I know them or not? If we know them, our brain relaxes and considers them friends. When scanning and encountering someone our brain doesn’t recognize, it then allocates additional attention to evaluating. What our brain is evaluating is whether the unknown individual represents a threat or not. Our brain’s default is not to consider as a threat. It’s default is more neutral. It recognizes someone it doesn’t know and thinks, “stranger”. We can think of our brain’s scanning effort as working on a continuum where friend sits at one end and foe sits at the other while stranger is in the middle. The default response to newness is stranger. Once settling on stranger, the brain seeks more information to help it assess whether it can relax and move this new person to the friend side of the continuum or whether more information suggests that vigilance must be maintained or increased as it moves the new person to the foe side.
Our brains look for physical cues from the other person to make these assessments. We have a deeply developed ability to read physical body language when assessing other’s motivations. Our brains look for physical markers which helps it evaluate a stranger and move in either the friend or foe direction. In order to assess another as friendly our brain looks for eye contact with the other. When brief eye contact is achieved an almost reflexive raising of eyebrows signals mutual curiosity and moves our brain to friendly. If this is followed with a slight head tilt, this, too, serves as an indication of friendliness. Finally, the presentation of some kind of genuine smile pushes the stranger metre further to friendly. Our brain manages these assessments very quickly largely without our active consciousness. In a world where we now see more masks being worn, how are our brains to make these assessments? They simply can’t. Jack Schafer writes in The Like Switch, “a face mask, particularly the ‘surgical’ kind that covers the mouth and nose of the user, acts as a foe signal even when that is not its intended purpose.”
Research shows that face-to-face communication regarding attitudes and feelings is 7 percent what people say, 38 percent how they say it, and 55 percent body language. With masks, over half of our efforts at communication are hidden. Another almost 40% is muffled, at best. Neither of these are helping our cause. If I don’t know you, I won’t know you. Our heightened alert coupled with our inability to accurately interpret any communication from masks is leading to us seeing foes everywhere. Now any stranger is more quickly interpreted as foe. We’re on edge and staying that way. We have a heightened sensitivity to seeing the worst in others. Worse yet, our empathy evaporates.
Leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith has recently released a compendium of essays from business leaders called Leadership in a Time of Crisis. One of the chapters is written by business strategist, Martin Lindstrom. Lindstrom recounts a recent trip to Hong Kong this Spring in the heart of COVID. The city of Hong Kong is populated by over 7,000,000 people and had experienced only a single death. Their containment of the virus had been remarkable. Nonetheless, Lindstrom noted that his experience within the city was different than in the past. One of the benefits was being able to go to a restaurant that would have been unavailable in busier times. However, the proprietor with whom he had some relationship was wearing a mask when “greeting” him. The mask masked the wearer’s facial expressions rendering a familiar person unfamiliar. Lindstrom noted that his comfort was reduced and empathy towards a masked person reduced as well.
Lindstrom writes, “empathy is the very backbone of humanity. We may not think about it every day, but even the tiniest facial movement, invisible to the naked eye but detectible by our subconscious mind, has been shown to have a profound impact on our ability to connect with other people.” He notes a study where mothers were asked to interact with their infants while keeping their faces emotionless for as long as possible. It was found that babies did not respond well. Within minutes, babies would melt down and express their displeasure. The distress to the infant could last for hours when their interactions with their mothers didn’t involve physical facial expressions that were supportive. Lindstrom also notes that mothers whom have had Botox treatments have greater difficulty connecting emotionally with children. It is believed that the reduced ability to show facial expressions is at the root of this disconnect.
Empathy is already a shrinking skill. The days of AT&T bombarding the airwaves with the advertising slogan “reach out and touch someone” from the early 80s are long gone. Not only are we not supposed to touch each other, we look at each other less and less. We stand in line at Starbucks and “order” our coffees while staring at our phones. We barely see the baristas we’re talking to. Our contact with each other is less and less. The harsher tone of online discourse reflects less empathy. Studies suggest kids are displaying less empathy with each other in their conversations as contact moves more online as opposed to in person. When we’re dealing remotely we don’t see the hurt and pain in someone’s eyes or body posture when we insult them. There’s a disconnect between our action and their reaction. This results in us simply not understanding the pain we’re causing. The gap reflects itself not just in empathy but in building any kind of relationship. Whether with masks or physical separation, we’re struggling to connect.
Henry Ford reminds us of the power of empathy when he said, “If there is any great secret of success in life, it lies in the ability to put yourself in the other person’s place and to see things from his point of view—as well as your own.” Customer service is all about relating with our customers. How can we resist or even reverse the current trends and ramp up our investment in developing empathy with our customers? Is there any purchasing experience in which customer service has increased for you in 2020? How can we show ourselves and our business to customers while also working to see their needs? If nothing else, it offers an area where we can differentiate ourselves from the flow of the current rushing the other way. Can we work to remove the Botox from our business? Are we willing to focus less on sterility and more on civility? Can we do the opposite of generic call centres, for example? Do we assign team members to look after specific customers? Are staff able to develop relationships with customers? Can they learn as much about customers as possible? Are they encouraged to learn about what’s on a customer’s mind? Do we know what’s going on in our customer’s personal and work worlds? Are you willing to work harder to build empathy and understanding with your clients? Are you willing to be more available and accessible to them relative to other businesses?